In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund

From Beatdom #16

William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:

I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …

But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it…

This is the story that Burroughs more or less stuck to over the years: that in On the Road (which is where Burroughs claimed the trust fund and countess myths originated) Kerouac made claims about his life that were patently untrue, and which saddled Burroughs with a lifelong reputation that he did not deserve.

Indeed, although Burroughs had easier access to finances than most people – particularly those among his own criminal and writing circles – “the Burroughs millions,” as he called them, were imagined. It is, however, easy to see how this story was so believable, or where it may have come from.

Burroughs’ grandfather, also called William Seward Burroughs, was famously the inventor of the adding machine. More accurately, he was the man who perfected the adding machine. He moved from New York to St. Louis in 1880, at only twenty-three years old, and with Joseph Boyer he founded the American Arthimometer Company four years later. Six years after that he finally perfected device and the company found success. However, at only thirty-nine years old his health failed and in 1898 he died. His business partner, Boyer, was kind enough to rename the company in Burroughs’ honor, and installed a large memorial in St. Louis that read: “Erected by his associates as a tribute to his genius.”

However, despite this recognition, Burroughs’ family would not prosper with the company’s rising star. Boyer took the Burroughs Adding Machine Company to Detroit and the company bought back all of the family’s stocks, except for Mortimer’s. Mortimer was the inventor’s second son and William S. Burroughs II’s father. He was only thirteen at the time, but kept the few shares in the company that belonged to him and, many years later, sold them only three months prior to the Crash of 1929. He was the only descendent to significantly profit from the invention of adding machine, and he did so largely through his own good business sense.

Glossing over the fact that his father did in fact make some money from the company, Burroughs later explained:

It’s an old old story how the inventor’s family winds up with zilch. Incompetent executors they advised the children that the whole thing is absolutely impractical and they had better sell out now for what they could get. Which they did. Which was a very small amount.

In any case, Burroughs’ parents – Mortimer and Laura Lee Burroughs – lived the sort of lives in St. Louis that one wouldn’t hesitate to call “upper class.” While Burroughs took any opportunity to mention the fictional origins of “the Burroughs millions,” his family was hardly hurting for cash during his childhood. He lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a number of staff. Burroughs, too, went to an excellent school which provided the sort of education expected of future leaders, and from which the students often went on to Ivy League colleges. Yet Burroughs was known to observe – as his assistant and executor, James Grauerholz, did in a biography in his collection, Word Virus – that his family was not wealthy compared to other families in the area. Indeed, it would appear that among the St. Louis elite the Burroughs family was considered rather poor, and this caused William S. Burroughs a bit of a complex for much of his life. Years later he spoke harshly of the “WASP elite,” who would not invite his family to the best parties. “Nobody wanted those ratty Burroughses around,” he said.

Later in life, referring to a seminal Beat publication by John Tytell, Burroughs explained:

[Tytell] talks as though we were the crème de la crème in St. Louis, which is absolute nonsense. My parents were in fairly good circumstances, but they were not at all in the millionaire class. Money means everything in the class system of a middle-western town like that, and we were very much outsiders as far as the really big money in St. Louis was concerned.

Although one would tend to snort at this sort of observation, in a world where people still routinely die of starvation, Burroughs’ frustration is understandable. His childhood appears to have been painful, and the cause of lifelong psychological problems, and a key component in his suffering was a sense of inferiority brought on by being an “outsider.” It would be decades before he could embrace this role as a literary outlaw of sorts, and yet at that time he would be confronted with the public image of himself as a trust fund baby – a spoiled rich kid, heir to an American dynasty. Having spent much of his life feeling inadequate, it must have been a slap in the face to have this perceived injustice mocked in public.

In 1936 he graduated from Harvard and embarked upon a “grand tour” of Europe, where he briefly attempted to attend medical school in Vienna. In his first novel, Junky, he states that, by way of a reward, his parents gave him a “trust fund” of $150 per month from their own earnings. The first point to note is that, while the book was ostensibly a work of fiction, it was in fact a thinly disguised biography. Written under the pseudonym William Lee, it was released in 1953. Burroughs’ protagonist is himself, and he is describing his own circumstances – replete with the trust fund that he supposedly never received, and which he later credited Kerouac with inventing.  As for its value, adjusted for today’s dollar, the $150 he supposedly received would be over $2,500. However, elsewhere, including Ted Morgan’s biography, the sum is listed as $200 per month (this appears the more likely sum), which would have amounted to almost $3,500 in today’s dollar. He received this amount every month for about twenty-five years. It’s only fair to note, of course, that as time went by, the value of the dollar lowered substantially, and therefore $200 in the late thirties was worth more than the same amount in the fifties or sixties. Nonetheless, Burroughs spent many of these years living in South and Central America, or Northern Africa, where prices were lower than in the States.

Burroughs never denied the fact that he received this money from his parents, although he did often observe that it was an “allowance” he received, and not a “trust fund.” Others have referred to it as a “stipend.” To his mind, the difference was important, at least long after he wrote and published Junky. Indeed, although the precise details of the arrangement are unclear, it would appear that what Burroughs received was an allowance or stipend, rather than a formal, legal trust fund. Regardless of its legal status, this allowance was what gave Burroughs the freedom to write and travel, as he was not forced to find regular work during this period. Had he not such an addiction to narcotics, it might even have provided him with an extremely comfortable life. Yet Burroughs usually downplayed its significance.

Ted Morgan goes on to state that beyond their allowance, which he described as “a tidy sum” and which arrived “with welcome regularity,” Burroughs’ parents were also there to help out in emergencies:

When there was an emergency, his parents were always there….the time he was fined $273 or six months in jail in Beeville, Texas, for drunken driving, and his mother wired the money. Or when he was stranded in Algiers during the war with the French, his bed alive with bedbugs, and his father wired the money.

It is hardly surprising, given these circumstances, that Burroughs might be considered as wealthy – particularly among his literary peers, for whom even modest sums of money were always just out of reach. So, if Jack Kerouac was indeed, as Burroughs claimed, the one who cemented his name in the American consciousness as a rich eccentric, could we entirely blame him? Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that Burroughs beat Kerouac by four years in describing himself as a trust fund recipient and a sort of outlaw man of leisure, it could well be that Jack Kerouac, unfamiliar with wealth – as he would’ve perceived the Burroughs family – simply confused an allowance with a trust fund.

Or perhaps it was direct parental assistance that pushed Kerouac to forge the myth of the Burroughs Millions. More than confusion or simple artistic license, it could be that Kerouac’s parents were very much different from Burroughs’. They had little to give, and when Kerouac was arrested – along with Burroughs – after the David Kammerer stabbing, he was forced into a marriage because his father wouldn’t post bail. Meanwhile, Burroughs’ parents simply bailed him out as they always did. It is plausible that Kerouac was motivated by a certain amount of jealousy, and for this reason portrayed his friend in what could be perceived a negative light.

Of course, this all presupposes the notion that Kerouac did start the myth of the Burroughs Millions by telling the world, in his most famous novel, that William S. Burroughs – known there as Old Bull Lee – was a trust fund baby, scion of a millionaire elite clan, a secretly rich man posing as genuinely Beat. This is the story of which Burroughs was adamant. And it does seem to fit. After all, following On the Road’s release in 1957, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Casssady, and everyone associated with the Beat Generation became press fodder. There is, however, another explanation for Kerouac’s creation of the Burroughs Millions. Quite simply, he might not have started the legend at all.

In On the Road, the book that made the Beats famous, and which contributed greatly to the public impression of Burroughs, among others, there is actually no mention of a trust fund or of the Burroughs Millions. Kerouac never used any of those words to describe his friend, as Burroughs so frequently complained. In both the version published in 1957, as well as the scroll, which appeared decades later, he certainly goes over the top in terms of biography. He tells a number of wild stories about Burroughs that, while they certainly had their origins in truth, were somewhat exaggerated.

Yet interestingly enough, it seems that Kerouac was actually fairly accurate in detailing Burroughs’ financial resources. He describes Burroughs as having “an income of fifty dollars a week from his family” which would equal two hundred dollars per month – the sum he did in fact receive. Kerouac claims “he always had a big roll in his pocket,” but then later contradicts himself. Note, in particular, the use of the word “only”:

He had bought this house in New Orleans with some money he made growing cotton in the Rio Grande valley with an old Harvard schoolmate whose father, a mad paretic, had died and left a fortune. Bill himself only got $50 a week from his own family, which wasn’t too bad except that he spent almost that much per week on a drug habit…morphine; and his wife was also expensive, gobbling up about ten dollars worth a week of benny tubes. Their foodbill was the lowest in the country; they never ate; the children never ate either.[1]

Burroughs’ character is certainly portrayed as an eccentric and, with a house, is more financially secure than the footloose characters around Kerouac, but he is never described as a trust fund baby. In fact, the description does largely portray the Burroughses as lacking money, even if it was their own fault. Burroughs is credited, too, with having purchased his house based upon his own legitimate business endeavors, rather than any inherited wealth. Though a fortune is referenced, it belongs to Kells Elvins’ character, and not to Burroughs. Next, Kerouac mentions many of the places Burroughs had visited – painting him as exotic – and it is obvious to any reader that this life would have been impossible without substantial funding. Yet these stories were all true. Perhaps in the storytelling they sounded a tad more fantastic than in reality, but they certainly had their basis in Burroughs’ own trips to Europe and elsewhere. This, of course, suggests that Burroughs’ complaints about his depiction in the book may stem from his own insecurities and issues regarding his upbringing, rather than any creation or substantial exaggeration from Kerouac.

It is interesting, then, that – as so often occurs with the Beat Generation – falsehoods are taken as truth. In books that mention the Beat Generation, through lazy research, it is often explained that Burroughs was the recipient of a trust fund, among other absurd “facts.” In books about the Beats, where the author has done more research, it is explained that Burroughs was saddled with his reputation thanks to the fictionalizing and romanticizing of Jack Kerouac – as per Burroughs’ complaints. Yet both these would appear to be false. The more likely explanation for the creation of the Burroughs Millions myth is that it started with Burroughs himself.

Most likely it was through Burroughs being paranoid about his own image and being so self-conscious about his background that he felt it necessary to speak out against Kerouac’s allegedly distorted portrait that he himself created the public image of a spoiled rich kid. During his interviews, he constantly told reporters of his frustration with Kerouac’s depiction of him. Yet it was Burroughs that used the phrase “trust fund” (in Junky and in his interviews) and Burroughs that coined the term “Burroughs millions.” Looking through Kerouac’s work, it is hard to see how his depictions would have unfairly biased public perception. In a July, 1949 letter to Allen Ginsberg, which was not published until after the death of all three men, but which would’ve been available to scholars a little earlier, Kerouac told Ginsberg that Burroughs would do well to move to Europe, as “his trust fund would be a fortune out there.” In Desolation Angels, which was written around the time On the Road was published (1957) but not published itself until 1965, Kerouac wrote a description of Burroughs that may have contributed to the myth. He describes Burroughs rather unpleasantly, as self-important and like a “Texas oil millionaire.” He goes on to say:

He’s six foot one, blue eyes, glasses, sandy hair, 44, a scion of a great American industrial family but they’ve only a-scioned him a $200 a month trust fund and are soon to cut that down to $120, finally two years later rejecting him completely from their interior decorated livingrooms in Florida because of the mad book he’s written and published in Paris (Nude Supper).

Here Kerouac uses the terms “scion” and “trust fund” but then follows up with “only” once again attached to the amount that Burroughs received. Interestingly, he claims that Burroughs was to have his allowance cut to $120. Because of the reference to the publication of Naked Lunch (1959) and the fallout it caused between Burroughs and his parents, it is clear that this section of the book was written in 1959 or the 1960s. Kerouac’s description of Burroughs as erratic and aggressive seems hardly unfair compared to other accounts of his attitude at the time, and the use of “scion” is also accurate. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a descendant of a wealthy, aristocratic, or influential family,” which is absolutely true. The reference to the trust fund, then, is inaccurate (if only in semantics) while the reason for Burroughs no longer receiving his allowance may or may not have been true. It was around 1966 that Burroughs stopped receiving financial assistance from his parents, but that was his own choice and due to the relative success of his own writing career. In 1959, after his mother read an article about him in Life magazine, she did temporarily cut him off.

The article, which put the Beats on the map, culturally speaking, described Burroughs rather absurdly, although, like Kerouac’s depictions, it stuck to what was admittedly the truth:

For sheer horror no member of the Beat Generation has achieved effects to compare with William S. Burroughs, who is regarded by many seekers after coolness as “the greatest writer in the world.” A Harvard man and the offshoot of the wealthy St. Louis family, Burroughs is now 45, a pale, cadaverous and bespectacled being who has devoted most of his adult life to the pursuit of drugs and debauchery.

The article, replete with photos that prove at least the physical description, was written after an interview with Burroughs, and the facts given are largely true, even if phrases like “for sheer horror” come across as comical. Yet the careful placement of “Harvard man” and the use of “the” prior to “wealthy St. Louis family” are telling. The article’s author is clearly suggesting that the Burroughs family should be known to Life readers, and that anyone who has attended Harvard should not be wasting their life on the pursuits that interested Burroughs. It cast Burroughs decidedly apart from the other Beats, in a mold that would remain for the rest of his life and beyond, as the Beat who chose to slum it, rather than having been consigned to such circumstances.

Another, less likely, reason to blame Kerouac was from the novella, Tristessa, which was published in 1960. Here, Kerouac referred to Bill Gaines by the name Old Bull, which was Burroughs’ name in On the Road. Old Bull is described as having a $150 trust fund, which may well have helped cement, for Kerouac’s readers, the idea that Burroughs had a trust fund. Yet it is stated in the text that this was a different Old Bull than the one who wrote “Junkey,” as Kerouac spelled it. At only three years after the release of On the Road, and a year after the release of Naked Lunch, it is not hard to imagine some readers, or members of the press, conflating the two characters.

If Kerouac’s novels – not to mention Ginsberg’s “Howl” – brought attention to the Beat Generation, it would not have been hard for fans, critics, and commentators of all sorts to jump to the conclusion that Burroughs was a wealthy man. At this point – the late-fifties and early-sixties – he was living in Tangiers and Paris, his name on a skyscraper in New York City, and if they dared to pick up his autobiographical first novel, Junky, they would’ve read from his own admission that he was a graduate of a “Big Three” university, and a recipient of a trust fund which meant that he didn’t need to bother himself with such tiresome activities as finding work (“With my trust fund I could live without working or hustling.”). He was, undeniably well-travelled, having lived in numerous countries and even explored South America on an “expedition” to procure a bizarre and unknown drug. He once complained that “One reviewer has even gone as far as to describe me as ‘the world’s richest ex-junkie’ at a time when I had less than $1000 in the bank.” Notwithstanding the fact that $1000 was a rather reasonable sum of money to have in the bank in the late-fifties, or that he was as much a junky as ever, or that Burroughs’ imagination was wilder than Kerouac’s and it has proven impossible to actually find this alleged piece of criticism, surely it could have come from a careful reading of Burroughs’ own work and, indeed, a cursory glance at his rather privileged life. He spent the following decades blaming Kerouac for all his woes, and yet presumably the critic’s comment stemmed more from reality, or Burroughs’ version of reality, than it did from On the Road.

Even at the end of his life, Burroughs was concerned about being perceived as rich. Only a few months before his death he wrote in his journal:

Story of the rich junky.

I [was] described by a moron critic as the world’s richest ex-junky. If $1,500 in [the] bank and no other assets made me the richest.

Had I been rich as I would have been had my father kept his Burroughs stock (ten million $$ right there), Naked Lunch would never have been written, nor any comparable work.

Show me a great writer very rich on inherited money. In France some good writers, like Gide, were well-off but not stratospheric rich.

He goes on to talk about the criteria for being rich, describing it as a club with staff and application procedures. It is obvious that even in his final days he was sensitive to the rejection he felt as a young boy, and throughout much of his life, based upon his financial status. He never felt as though he was part of a group as a youth because he was not wealthy enough, and then later in life when he was lumped in with the Beats, he felt as though he was being judged for the exact opposite reason. In all, he always felt rejected.

From his use of the quote “the world’s richest ex-junky” we can see that this is a criticism that stuck with him for nearly forty years. He was still bitter that, in the wake of publishing his own great contribution to world literature, he was written off for being too wealthy. To Burroughs that must have been the harshest, most unfair criticism imaginable.

Readers of his biographies and letters will be familiar with a situation which plagues most writers – a desperation for cash. After forgoing his allowance in the 1960s, Burroughs was reliant upon his writing for financial support. As time went by and his books gained notoriety, he was able to get by on royalty checks, but he suffered financial problems right up until his death, which partly explains the lament and bitterness in the previously mentioned journal entry. In 1973 Burroughs was in London and struggling badly for cash. He wanted to return to the US and had to sell his archives in order to finance the move. In the 1980s he was saddled with the medical bills for his son, Billy. Even a $200,000 book deal was unable to give him financial security. He was able to give lectures and speak to various crowds in exchange for money, thanks to his infamy and the help of friends, but he was never well-off. In the mid-1990s, in his final years, even as a venerated old man of American literature, he was taking loans to pay his bills.

The Burroughs Millions were a Burroughs invention, and one which caused him a great deal of pain. Yet, as he acknowledged in that late journal entry, had he simply inherited a vast wealth from his grandfather, he would never have written his final works. The landscape of late-twentieth century Western culture would be very different. Alongside the death of Joan Vollmer and the struggle to accept his own homosexuality, pain was a tremendous driving force for William S. Burroughs. He often looked around to assign blame, as well as to seek a cure, and in this case he found his target in Jack Kerouac. Yet we can finally let Kerouac off the hook. Burroughs’ name will probably always be tarnished with the falsehoods he unwittingly created, but those who look a little deeper will, as always, find the truth.


[1] This is from the Original Scroll. In the published version, the only changes to Burroughs’ description are that he made money growing black-eyed peas instead of cotton, and the word “morphine” is removed.